finishing_fWorking as a team, training gun dogs is the most efficient way for amateurs to ensure success. My good fortune allowed me to train for years at the grounds of the late Ed Whitaker, now enshrined in the Bird Dog Hall of Fame for his numerous contributions to English springer spaniels. Whitaker’s only requirements for training at his grounds were to behave like a gentleman or lady, and to care about and work toward consistently improving one’s dog.

Whitaker and his close friend, the late Ed Berger, were my mentors, though many other knowledgeable trainers assisted. Trust me when I say they had their hands full.

A typical training session started by gathering pigeons and pheasants from their pens at about 10:30 a.m. and continued until about 4 p.m. Refreshments and endless discussions on birds, dogs and shotguns followed.

If anyone had young puppies we started with puppy quartering drills on a low-cut part of the extended yard. The format we followed provides a good guideline for anyone training in a group situation, so I’ll outline it here.

The pup’s owner/handler and two others should have a dead pigeon or two in their training vests and line up parallel to each other, facing downfield, about 12 to 15 yards apart, with the owner/handler in the middle. As the owner casts his pup toward one side, the helper on that side says “Hey pup!” and waves/shakes a dead pigeon so the pup sees it.

Pup races toward the pigeon and just before reaching it the helper hides the pigeon behind his back, just as the owner blows the whistle with two short, sharp blasts. Pup will turn toward the whistle to see what the commotion is about and see the helper on the far side of the owner waving and shaking another pigeon so pup can see it.

An interested pup will race across the field toward the second dead pigeon, passing in front of his owner. Again the bird is hidden just before pup reaches the helper and the owner toots the whistle twice. Pup again turns to look for the whistle and sees the helper on the opposite side waving a dead pigeon.

On this, the third crossing of the field, the first helper waits until pup nears him then gives the dead bird a short toss, being sure pup is looking at him and will see the tossed bird. If pup’s preliminary retrieving drills have worked, pup will race and pick up the pigeon and retrieve it to his owner.

The owner/handler should stoop down to pup’s level, and before taking the pigeon, pet and praise pup enthusiastically while holding one hand under pup’s mouth so the bird doesn’t drop prematurely. After praising pup, the owner takes the bird and continues to praise him, then puts the bird out of sight in his vest.

If you’re using this program, allow two or three retrieves but no more until later. Give pup some water and put him in his crate.

Heart-to-heart  
After training our young dogs we do basically the same thing with the older dogs, except with live birds, not letting them see the live bird dizzied or tossed into cover. Pup is going to find and flush this live, healthy bird.

Pup should quarter three to four times before having a bird planted. Make sure pup turns quickly on the whistle and that he stays within 10 yards when he passes you during quartering.
If during the drill pup turns and begins to cross too far downfield, whistle pup towards you with repeated short toots and your hand reaching out towards him. He should pull in toward you; don’t let him pass by.

Occasionally you might have to produce a treat for pup to bring him in to you, then cast him toward the side he was headed for. It should not take many treats to keep him close. DON’T OVERDO TREATS!

Have a helper toss a dizzied bird into short cover and allow pup to scent the bird and flush it, being sure he is steady before the bird is shot by one of your helpers. Caution helpers not to shoot if your dog breaks on the flush.

If pup breaks, you must run him down, bring him back to the spot he broke from and return to your starting point while he waits. Certainly you had a little “heart-to-heart” talk with pup, perhaps while giving him a firm, controlled shake.

We hope the next attempt at the same drill works and you get two good retrieves from the drill. Water pup and crate him after praising him for his successful retrieves. If pup breaks on the second retrieve, crate him and try him again later.

We will go through everyone’s dog the same way, correcting as necessary, and remembering to praise as earned. Remember, a well-bred dog wants to please his master—that is one of your best training aids.

Each dog should get three retrieves, and we hope the guns successfully drop the birds so a retrieve can be made.

It is not life or death if a bird is missed occasionally, because pup must learn we do not get every flushed bird. An occasional miss, in fact, helps instill steadiness to wing and shot.

Blind Retrieve  
An extra drill to help pup (while not taking up much time) is introducing pup to “go back” to retrieve a bird he did not see fall. Perhaps he was in heavy cover or on the opposite side of a hedgerow and did not see a bird go down. This is how to start him making that retrieve, or “hunt dead.”

After pup’s two or three retrieves, the helpers, you and pup turn 180 degrees and re-trace your course up-field toward the starting spot. You drop a dead bird on the ground as you start walking back to your starting point.

Pup will almost assuredly see you drop the bird, which is fine, but you should not let him grab or retrieve it. Rather, keep walking and keep pup heeling at your side, even if he must be leashed. You actually want pup to know the bird was dropped early in this learning stage.

When you and pup walk back about one-third of the field, your helpers walk away while you turn around and face downfield again, with pup doing the same. With pup at your side, put your hand in front of pup’s face and direct him downfield where the bird was dropped.

If you use the same training area you will have a nice, beaten path and pup will follow it—again, good for now. Give the command “Back!” and pup will race downfield and retrieve the dead bird. Bend down as he returns and pet him before taking the bird, but do not let him drop it. Praise is an important key when training.

Do this drill regularly from now on and increase the length of the retrieve as pup continues to retrieve boldly with speed and enthusiasm. Eventually pup will be going the length of the field. When finished, water pup and put him up. Repeat this mini-drill each time down the field.

After completing these sessions, some of us would take the dogs to the pond if it was warm enough. By late spring we never missed a quick water workout.

Water work is another perfect way to solidify steadiness. Have two to five dogs sit (hup) about eight yards from the pond while owners stand between them and the water. One person tosses a dummy into the pond and while each dog is dying to retrieve it, only one is allowed to make the retrieve.

Wait several seconds then have one owner call his dog’s name to break for the water while the others wait their turn. If another dog breaks, his owner or a friend should be able to stop him and put him on his butt and make him wait as he should. Give each dog at least one chance to retrieve and then let another few dogs take their turn.

Finish with anything your dog might need special work on, but do not take too long or you will be late for cheese and crackers, and that all important cold beverage.

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